When Work Takes Over

Laura Russell calls herself a “recovering workaholic.” The phrase might sound like a joke, were it not coming from someone whose research is dedicated to understanding the roots—and risks—of a real but overlooked addiction. She is inspired by a deceptively simple question: How many of us truly have a healthy relationship with our work?

An assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Russell says the distinction between those who love their work and those battling workaholism is compulsion: “There’s an absolute fear,” she says, “an inability to be okay with themselves if they’re not producing something.” And though it’s not purely an American problem, she says certain ingrained aspects of Western culture make it more prevalent here. There is the Puritan work ethic, and the pedestals on which we place the CEOs, football coaches, and others who famously get by on four or five hours of sleep each night; add in high unemployment and the 24/7-tether of tablets and smartphones, and it’s no wonder that, for many, anything less than overworking seems like not working enough.

“It’s in the rhythm of everything around us,” she says, “and we’re really not even questioning it.”

Russell is trying. In her work at Denison and as a member of the board of Workaholics Anonymous, she is poking at our unconscious assumptions. Is it natural, she asks, that humans should require a giant mug of caffeine to get moving in the morning and an energy “shot” in the early afternoon? She’s looking as well at the mental, emotional, and even chemical factors that turn work into compulsion. “It’s both a process addiction and a substance addiction,” she says. “You become addicted to certain habits, and then, for some people, replicating those habits does create a true adrenaline rush.”

The fallout? There are the obvious risks: broken marriages, resentful children, men and women who work until their hearts give out. Then there are those for whom all those nights of skimping on sleep eventually leads to careless mistakes on the job, or who commit to one too many projects and simply can’t keep up. Russell isn’t optimistic about reversing all this. “There isn’t a cure-all, and I think it’s going to get harder,” she says. “The more we value productivity and efficiency, and develop products that make us superhuman, the more we devalue what makes us human.”

Published March 2014